Sunday, December 7, 2014

The problem is people in general

There are a lot of complaints about specific groups of people that, upon closer examination, are really just complaints about human beings

As a member of the mainstream media, I take to heart the serious problem of false stories getting more attention then the corrections that set the record straight. This is a major problem that I think about a lot, and during my stint as a newspaper editor I fought my publisher (and lost) to give front page space to corrections.

However, I've noticed a similar issue among social media shares. I have a lot of Facebook friends who breathlessly shared news stories like Mike Daisey's accounts of labor abuse in a Chinese factory that made Apple products. Those same friends didn't say much, or anything at all, when it was revealed to be a lie.

The same is true for Rolling Stone magazine's story about a fraternity organizing a planned mass rape at the University of Virginia story. It appears an activist made up a story at a Take Back the Night rally and then kept the lie going when a reporter wanted to write about it. It's not a slam-dunk, Rolling Stone has not officially retracted the story, but has admitted it screwed up and numerous claims in her story have been disproved.

Again, the same people who shared that story are now mute. If you inadvertently helped spread a false story, aren't you honor-bound to make sure the correction gets the same amount of attention, if not more?

In a way, my friends have become the editors of their own newspapers with complete control and no profits to worry about, and yet they are making the same mistake. Perhaps they either lack an interest in issue a correction, don't want to admit they were wrong or lack the zeal they had for the false narrative.

There's a big possible lesson here. Maybe the reason newspapers fail to give as much attention to corrections is not that there is some flaw in the people that run them, but that they are staffed by mere human beings.

Look at Paul Piff's study where he had two people play part of a game of Monopoly and randomly gave one of them more starting money and an extra die to move around the board faster. He reported that they seemed oblivious to their advantages and credited their win to strategy and merit.

A lot of commentators used this study to condemn rich people who believe they earned what they have, but Piff's real conclusion was that people are malleable. After all, these weren't actual rich people but everyday people who were randomly put into a special category. The bad behavior on display was from people in general, and the only thing that made them special was that they were placed into a particular position.

This extends to the Wall Street workers who traded bad loans and helped cause the recession, politicians who give favors to special interest groups who give them money and police officers who shoot black suspects. When you judge a group of people negatively, check to see if the real issue isn't that mere human beings were placed in special set of circumstances.

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